Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - What Binds Us Together



Sermons also on Youtube in higher resolution format.

Sunday Sermon audio - What Binds Us Together


Sunday Sermon text - What Binds Us Together


1 Peter 2:2-10
What Binds Us Together
James Sledge                                                                                  May 22, 2011

Some years ago – it may have been back when I was in seminary – a Sunday Doonesbury comic strip depicted a couple who was doing some “church shopping.”  They were seated in the office of the Reverend Scott Sloan, the laid back pastor who has been a regular in Doonesbury for decades.  “So what would you like to know about the Little Church of Walden, folks?” Pastor Sloan asks.  “Don’t hold back—I know how difficult it can be to choose a church.”
“Well, what’s your basic approach here, Reverend,” asks the husband. “Is it traditional gospel?”
“In a way,” answers the pastor.  “I like to describe it as 12 Step Christianity.  Basically, I believe that we’re all recovering sinners.  My ministry is about overcoming denial.  It’s about re-commitment, about redemption.  It’s all in the brochure there.”
“Wait a minute,” the woman interrupts, “Sinners?” Redemption? Doesn’t that all imply … guilt?”
“Well, yes,” admits the pastor, “I do rely on the occasional disincentive to keep the flock from going astray.  Guilt’s part of that.”
“I dunno,” the man says, “There’s so much negativity in the world as it is.”
“That’s right,” agrees his wife. “We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves.  I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.”
“On the other hand,” notes the husband, looking at the brochure, “you do offer racquetball.”
 “So did the Unitarians, honey,” replies his wife.  “Let’s shop around some more.”
This comic strip scene is not that far from reality.  Although fewer and fewer Americans feel the need to choose a church, those who do often make the choice through a process not so different from buying a car or picking a college to attend.  What sort of extras are there and how much do they cost?  Do I like the look and feel?  What sort of value to I get for my investment?  And so on.
Now I don’t know that there is any great problem with people choosing a  church congregation that fits their musical tastes or the worship style they grew up with.  But I do worry sometimes that American notions of faith, salvation, and belief have become overly individualized and personalized. 

Take that stereotypical faith question, “Are you saved?”  Now admittedly this is not a standard Presbyterian question, but we’ve all been shaped by its very personal focus.  In this very typically American take on faith, salvation is not a corporate thing.  Congregation and community may have a role to play in bringing people to faith, but salvation is a matter or my Yes or No, of whether or not my name is on the divine guest list.
So what then are we to do with today’s words from 1 Peter?  Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.  Come to him, a living stone… and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.  But if salvation is a Yes or No answer, an in or out seal of approval, then how does one grow into it?
Grow into salvation… Like living stones, be built into a spiritual house… Stones are a popular building material around here.  Our sanctuary is made of stone.  And so I want you to do a little imagining with me.  I want you to imagine a time when the sanctuary had not yet been built, when the building materials had been delivered and piles of stones were sitting there waiting to be used, but construction had not yet started.
Now here is where you really need your imaginations.  Imagine that these stones are alive.  They are somehow aware that a church sanctuary is about to be built and that they are to be part of it.  And the stones are discussing this with one another.  “Has anyone heard whether or not they’re putting a pipe organ in this church?  I don’t want to be in a church that doesn’t have one.  That’s not really a church.”
“I don’t care about that,” says another stone.  I want a church that’s active in mission and evangelism, and I don’t want to be part of a place with too much focus on the building and Sunday services.  I’d rather be part of a more modest building filled with people who do ministry outside the walls.”
“Well I would like a pipe organ,” says yet another stone, “but what I really want is well-ordered worship that respects tradition.  I hope this isn’t going to be one of those churches that lets women be pastors or, God forbid, gays.  If it is, I want no part of it.”
Imagine this conversation going on among all the stones, arguing about the kind of church they did or didn’t want to be a part of.  And imagine the construction crew arriving on a Monday morning to begin work, only to discover that huge numbers of the stones were missing, having left to seek a place more to their liking.
Ridiculous, I know, but not so ridiculous when the living stones we’re talking about are you and me and all those others called to be one in Christ Jesus.  It seems to me that more often than not, we do not think of Jesus as the mortar that holds us together, but rather those other things that we have in common.  And so conservative stones come together to construct conservative churches and liberals stones to construct liberal ones.  African American stones construct African American churches and white stones construct white ones.  Wealthy, elite stones build wealthy churches, and working class stones build working class churches.  And we, the living stones, seem bound together not into a spiritual house, but into a very human structure, constructed on foundations of ethnicity, possessions, politics, and personal tastes rather than on the cornerstone of Jesus.
Just over a week ago, a majority of the presbyteries – the regional, representative governing bodies in our Presbyterian Church (USA) – approved a change in our constitution that removes a requirement for all those being ordained as pastors, elders, or deacons, either to be in a marriage between a man and woman or chaste in singleness.  And while this requirement did not mention gays or lesbians by name, the focus of the rule, and of its recent removal, has been on the ordination of gays and lesbians.  And so you may have seen the headline in the Columbus Dispatch stating, “Presbyterians Decide to Accept Gay Clergy.”
I’ll forgive the fact that the Dispatch doesn’t appreciate that we Presbyterians treat the ordination of pastors the same as the ordination of elders and deacons.  And while I fully support the change in our constitution and rejoice with gay and lesbian friends who now hope that they can use the gifts God has given them in the calls God has placed on their hearts, my deep concern at this moment lies with the conversations and arguments between those living stones. 
“What a great day.  God’s grace and the spirit of Jesus has triumphed over a couple of misunderstood biblical passages taken out of context.”
“Are you kidding?  This vote is a travesty, an abandonment of biblical morality, and I don’t want to be part of a church that would even consider ordaining gays.”
“Are you kidding?!  Well I don’t want to be in a church filled with old-fashioned bigots like you!”
Already the conversations in our denomination have turned to who is going to stay and who is going to go.  How many conservative congregations are going to exit the denomination?  And how will they be treated if they leave?  Will presbyteries sue them to keep their church properties for the denomination?  Will the squabbling amongst the stones turn bitter ?
Come to (Jesus), a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
God has chosen you in Jesus, and chosen that person near you that you disagree with, and that person you don’t like, and that person who hates the songs you like, and so on and so on, that together we might be bound into spiritual house, a holy people, a royal priesthood, to proclaim the wonders of God’s love and mercy that have joined us together into the living body of Christ.
Thanks be to God!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Lord, Lord, Where's the Fruit?

In today's reading from Luke, Jesus combines his teaching about good trees bearing good fruit with his pointed question, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?"  Why is it that we often profess our faith in Jesus but that doesn't issue forth in much fruit?  How is it that I can be a pastor but do a lot more talking about what Jesus says to do than actually doing any of it?

There are a lot of reasons we big on belief and short on fruits.  For some folks, faith is a kind of insurance policy.  Believing and church attendance are the premiums with the payout being heaven when they die.  But this sort of thinking seems to motivate less and less people, which in part explains the decline of traditional congregations. 

But lack of fruits is not just a problem for traditional folks.  We are a consumer society, and religion has become a consumer item.  People often seek a spirituality or religion that will "meet their needs."  This sort of religious search sometimes expects Jesus to provide all the fruit.  Faith, spirituality, religion is viewed as a product to enhance one's life.

But for me, I think that most often the problem is one of inertia.  It is like those times when I am certain that I need to get up and go for a run in the morning, but I remain in bed, hitting the snooze button and staying put.  All too often, I know that what Jesus asks of me is exactly what I should and need to do, but I delay, I do something else, I stay put.

It has been many years since I read Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship but I still remember him saying that true faith requires obedience.  In that sense, I suppose faith is like health.  Believing that I need to exercise in order to be healthy won't make any difference in my health.  Only getting up and doing it will impact my health.  It takes acting on belief for faith to be real, for faith to produce the fruits Jesus insists that it must. 

Lord, touch my heart so that I will get off my butt and bear a little fruit.

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A Letter to the Congregation

Below is a letter I've made available to the congregation of Boulevard Presbyterian regarding the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s removal of ordination standards that barred those in same-sex relationships from serving.


A Pastoral Letter to the Congregation on the Passage of Amendment 10-A, Removing the “Fidelity and Chastity” requirement for Ordination in the PC(USA)

Some of you likely noticed the headline in the Columbus Dispatch the other day that read “Presbyterians Decide to Accept Gay Clergy.”  As often happens with such articles, a few of the details were not quite correct, but our denomination has, in fact, voted to change its Book of Order. This change will permit sessions and presbyteries to ordain those in same-sex relationships as elders, deacons, and pastors.  This change to our constitution seems to end a battle that has been raging for my entire time as a pastor, but the exact impact of this change remains to be seen.

No doubt there will be some turmoil.  A few conservative congregations may feel it necessary to leave the denomination.  Others will stay but insist that this change is but one more step away from biblical faith and toward the eventual demise of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I, however, welcome this change in our ordination standards, and I would like to tell you why.

The first has nothing to do with gays or lesbians per se, but rather with how the ordinations standards that we are replacing strayed from traditional Presbyterian theology and polity.  Presbyterians have long given presbyteries the responsibility of ordaining pastors, and sessions the responsibility of ordaining elders and deacons.  Their jobs were to examine candidates for ordination and determine if their call, gifts, faith, and adherence to our theology suited them to serve as ordained leaders in our Church.  But the standards about to be abandoned changed that as you can see here.


Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

This so-called “fidelity and chastity” amendment, approved in 1997, elevated a single “sin” above all others.  This not only highlighted our culture’s obsession with sex, but it erroneously implied that sexual sins are somehow more worrisome that other sins.  I don’t think Jesus ever addresses chastity, but he speaks regularly on the problem of greed and possessions.  Surely in our consumerist society, this is much more of a problem for most whom we ordain.  Why no mention of greed?

The new ordinations standards replace this hypersensitivity to sex with, to my mind, a much more balanced statement, one much more in keeping with basic Presbyterian/Reformed theology.

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

These new standards are not some secular humanist, anything-goes, follow-the-cultural-flow sort of thing.  They call for conformity to Scripture and our confessions.  They simply do not highlight fidelity and chastity as deal breakers.

But I am happy with this change not simply because it removes one special “sin” as a disqualification for office.  I am also happy because I am convinced that God does call gays and lesbians, along with all other sorts of people, to serve as pastors, elders, and deacons.  I know that some will quickly insist that the Bible won’t allow it.  But the biblical texts people pluck from Leviticus sit alongside other prohibitions Christians long ago said did not apply such as bans on eating shellfish or wearing clothing made from two kinds of material. (Any cotton/polyester blends in your closet?)
For 1500 years, Christendom enforced a ban on lending money at interest, a ban clearly stated in the Bible.  But John Calvin, the founder of our tradition, argued forcefully for ending that ban.  He said the ban had made sense in biblical times when interest was used to trap people in poverty.  But in his day, when people needed loans to start companies that might employ those same people and lift them from poverty, the ban no longer served its original purpose.  In fact, Calvin argued, it would be more in keeping with the original intent of the Bible to disobey what the Bible said.

That’s a pretty novel way to read Scripture, but it became the basis for the modern banking industry.  And I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone object to Calvin’s creative interpretation of the Bible.  The simple fact is that we are not bothered by creative interpretation of Scripture when it leads us where we want to go in the first place.

I know there are people of deep and committed faith who disagree with me, but I do not see the Bible speaking against committed relationships among gays and lesbians.  We have inflated the few scant verses that seem to speak on the topic far beyond their significance in Scripture, primarily because of our peculiar fascination with sex which manages to combine squeamishness and, at the same time, obsession.  And there has been an added bonus for heterosexuals.  All of this pointing at the “sin” of homosexuality keeps the focus on a “sin” which doesn’t tempt many of us, and off those real sins that do, the ones Jesus talks so frequently about such as greed, resentment, and hate.

I do not expect everyone to agree with me, nor need we agree in order to be joined together as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Our unity is in Jesus, not in our particular interpretations of Scripture.  And so I hope that those who welcome this change, along with those who don’t, will take some time to reflect on our unity.  There are those in our denomination who are fanning flames of discord, some by spreading half-truths and even lies.  In truth, the actual changes most congregations experience will be negligible.  Those where gays and lesbians have found themselves welcomed and valued will continue to operate as they always have.  Meanwhile, those congregations that wouldn’t dream of electing a gay deacon under the old standards won’t likely start now.  And as I’ve already noted, it is up to individual sessions and presbyteries to determine whom they will and won’t ordain under these new standards.

And so in closing, let me call all of you to something that has long been considered a “duty” of Christians, the practice of “mutual forbearance.”  The Bible insists that we are all one in Christ, and it calls us to maintain this unity, even in the midst of our differences.  When we practice mutual forbearance and maintain this bond of love, this unity in Christ, even though we do not agree on all issues, we make a powerful witness to the world.  We show the world another way, the power of the Spirit to join all people together in the one family of God.

Peace in Christ,
James

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - But That's Hard!


"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you... Give to everyone who begs from you... But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return... Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you."

Lots of us recognize these words as coming from Jesus.  We know that Jesus says, "Love your enemies."  Many of us can say the Lord's Prayer from memory, including that part where we ask for forgiveness, conditioned on our promise to forgive others.  We know all these things.  But we also know how hard it can be for us to forgive, how much we prefer to hate our enemy, get back at the one who hurts us, and reassure ourselves that the man on the street corner with a sign asking for help is probably scamming people.

What Jesus asks of us is hard, so hard we can't quite imagine really doing it.  And so we decide that "believing in Jesus" somehow gives us a pass. 

For the very first Christians almost 2000 years ago, their basic statement of faith was, "Jesus is Lord."  We still invoke this title for Jesus, but it seems to me that at the core of our faith, many of us have traded Lord for Savior.  We want Jesus to "save" us, though we often have very different ideas about what we need saving from.  But we're less interested in Jesus being our God, our Master, the one who we will follow and obey.  I try to obey Jesus to a point, as do many.  But what Jesus asks is hard, sometimes very hard.  Surely some of it is optional.  And surely Jesus will forgive me anyway.

Sometimes I think that what I most need to be "saved" from is my own half-hearted way of following Jesus.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Dropping Everything

I've always thought it a bit odd that Luke tells of Jesus calling his first disciples after he tells of Jesus healing Simon's mother-in-law.  I find it curious that when Jesus "rebuked" her fever that this did not provoke the awe or fear Simon feels at the miraculous catch of fish in today's gospel reading.



After a full night of fishing with no success, Simon hesitates when Jesus tells him to put out into the deep water for one more try with the nets, but because Jesus says so, he agrees.  And what the earlier healing had not done, the miraculous catch of fish does.  Simon Peter (the name Peter appearing here for the first time) now senses the holy and dangerous, divine presence, and so he falls on his face and says, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!"



Jesus does not dispute Simon's assertion.  Instead he says, "Do not be afraid; from on you will be catching people."  In some ways this story in Luke looks like others in the Bible where people encounter God.  Moses and Isaiah come to mind.  But those other stories seem more concerned with issues of purity and sin.  Moses must remove his sandals and remain at a safe distance from the bush, and Isaiah has an ember from the altar touched to his lips to purify him prior to receiving his call.  But Jesus simply says, "Do not be afraid; let's go catch people" and Simon, James, and John drop everything and go with him.  They walk away from what must surely have been the biggest payday of their fishing careers, and go with Jesus.



I am struck with how often Jesus seems oblivious to the normal purity issues of religion.  He clearly practices his Jewish faith and honors its traditions, but when grace and gospel come into conflict with rules, he seems always to side with grace and good news.



You're a sinner?  No matter; come with me.  You are a leper and unclean?  No matter; touch me and be healed.  You need help, today, on the Sabbath?  No matter; I will heal you.  You're an adulteress condemned to death by the Law?  No matter; I do not condemn you.



Now this doesn't mean that Jesus thinks anything goes, that he doesn't care how people act or behave.  Clearly he does.  He tells that adulteress, "Go, and sin no more."  But Jesus' focus is rarely on religious ritual or religious purity rules.  Jesus is focused on the kingdom, on God's new day when loving God with all our being and loving neighbor is how things will be, when all human life will be lived by the pattern of Jesus' life.



Just like the religious institutions of Jesus' day, churches often seem to worry more about institutional things, about rules, boundaries, and such.  And while we do have concern for the sick and the poor, we tend to place this at the edges of our institutional practices.  Unlike Jesus, who could regularly be found among the poor and outcast, we make occasional forays into the world of those poor people, those less fortunate than us.  We worry a lot more about self preservation.  We cannot even conceive of losing our institutional selves, of dying for the sake of others.



My denomination has just changed its rules for who may be ordained, removing explicit language requiring such people either to be in a marriage between a man and a woman or to be chaste in singleness.  Debates around this have occupied us for over three decades.  And while I believe this change aligns us closer to the ways of Jesus, I still lament the energy for sharing the good news of the Kingdom that was lost to our institutional arguing.



I sometimes wonder if we don't have too high a view of the church.  And by church I'm not referring to that Spirit formed community of all the saints from every time and place, but that visible thing, that institutional thing, we construct.  In this broken world, I know that structures are necessary, that we must define and help people learn what it means to live as a member of the community, seeking to help members' lives become more and more Christ-like.  But at times, I wonder if we don't need just to drop everything, and follow Jesus.



Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Spiritual Hiccups - Dropping Everything (recovered post from May 12)

I've always thought it a bit odd that Luke tells of Jesus calling his first disciples after he tells of Jesus healing Simon's mother-in-law.  I find it curious that when Jesus "rebuked" her fever that this did not provoke the awe or fear Simon feels at the miraculous catch of fish in today's gospel reading.


After a full night of fishing with no success, Simon hesitates when Jesus tells him to put out into the deep water for one more try with the nets, but because Jesus says so, he agrees.  And what the earlier healing had not done, the miraculous catch of fish does.  Simon Peter (the name Peter appearing here for the first time) now senses the holy and dangerous, divine presence, and so he falls on his face and says, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!"


Jesus does not dispute Simon's assertion.  Instead he says, "Do not be afraid; from on you will be catching people."  In some ways this story in Luke looks like others in the Bible where people encounter God.  Moses and Isaiah come to mind.  But those other stories seem more concerned with issues of purity and sin.  Moses must remove his sandals and remain at a safe distance from the bush, and Isaiah has an ember from the altar touched to his lips to purify him prior to receiving his call.  But Jesus simply says, "Do not be afraid; let's go catch people" and Simon, James, and John drop everything and go with him.  They walk away from what must surely have been the biggest payday of their fishing careers, and go with Jesus.


I am struck with how often Jesus seems oblivious to the normal purity issues of religion.  He clearly practices his Jewish faith and honors its traditions, but when grace and gospel come into conflict with rules, he seems always to side with grace and good news.


You're a sinner?  No matter; come with me.  You are a leper and unclean?  No matter; touch me and be healed.  You need help, today, on the Sabbath?  No matter; I will heal you.  You're an adulteress condemned to death by the Law?  No matter; I do not condemn you.


Now this doesn't mean that Jesus thinks anything goes, that he doesn't care how people act or behave.  Clearly he does.  He tells that adulteress, "Go, and sin no more."  But Jesus' focus is rarely on religious ritual or religious purity rules.  Jesus is focused on the kingdom, on God's new day when loving God with all our being and loving neighbor is how things will be, when all human life will be lived by the pattern of Jesus' life.


Just like the religious institutions of Jesus' day, churches often seem to worry more about institutional things, about rules, boundaries, and such.  And while we do have concern for the sick and the poor, we tend to place this at the edges of our institutional practices.  Unlike Jesus, who could regularly be found among the poor and outcast, we make occasional forays into the world of those poor people, those less fortunate than us.  We worry a lot more about self preservation.  We cannot even conceive of losing our institutional selves, of dying for the sake of others.


My denomination has just changed its rules for who may be ordained, removing explicit language requiring such people either to be in a marriage between a man and a woman or to be chaste in singleness.  Debates around this have occupied us for over three decades.  And while I believe this change aligns us closer to the ways of Jesus, I still lament the energy for sharing the good news of the Kingdom that was lost to our institutional arguing.


I sometimes wonder if we don't have too high a view of the church.  And by church I'm not referring to that Spirit formed community of all the saints from every time and place, but that visible thing, that institutional thing, we construct.  In this broken world, I know that structures are necessary, that we must define and help people learn what it means to live as a member of the community, seeking to help members' lives become more and more Christ-like.  But at times, I wonder if we don't need just to drop everything, and follow Jesus.


Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Spiritual Hiccups - God Looks Like This

"He is the image of the invisible God."  So begins today's reading from Colossians, speaking, of course, about Jesus.  I read somewhere - I'm not sure, but it might have been something by Brian McLaren - that rather than speaking of Jesus being like God in some way, we might come at it the other way round.  What if we made Jesus the standard and simply said, God is like Jesus?

Most Christians profess to be Trinitarian in some way.  I often end worship here with the blessings of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But practically speaking, many people tend to think of God as Father, with Son and Holy Spirit as junior partners.  They're derivative in some way, offshoots.  You can detect this in the prayer language people use, speaking to "Father God."  They never pray to "Spirit God" or "Jesus God," only "Father God."

God looks like Jesus.  That's what "image of the invisible God" sounds like to me.  Not that Jesus is a stand in for God, or God's stunt double, but when we see Jesus, we see God.  We can look at Jesus and say, that's what God is like.  That's how God acts.  That's how God is.

Growing up in the Church, Jesus seemed to me important mostly for what he did.  His death on the cross got us something and that was why he mattered.  I picked up the Trinitarian language, but Jesus wasn't my image of God.  Jesus was intermediary or sacrifice.

I wonder how Christianity and the Church might look differently if we thought more in terms of Jesus being the face of God, the way of God, the essence of God?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Abundance

Sermons also available on Youtube in higher video resolution.

Spiritual Hiccups - Living within the Tension

Almost all religions have purity or holiness standards.  At the burning bush, Moses is commanded to take off his sandals because he is on holy ground.  Worship itself is a statement that they rhythms of life require regular cessation of all other activities so that we may focus ourselves totally on God.  The notion of a special day or Sabbath for worship helps enforce such rhythms.  Any number of religious rituals are related to purity .  I've always been amazed at the number of people with no church affiliation who nonetheless want their infant children to be baptized.  Something very similar goes on with secular Jews and circumcision. 

In recent years, a large number of young people have been attracted ancient Christian rituals as disparate as walking labyrinths to monastic chants to Eastern Orthodox worship.  Some of this may be the novelty and exotic nature of these rituals, but some is the recognition that drawing near to the divine demands that we step out of regular, mundane, even profane patterns and into patterns that are more resonate with the holy.

The Bible is filled with "holiness codes" and calls for us to be a holy people and a holy priesthood.  But the Bible is also filled with calls to love one's neighbor and even to love one's enemy.  It requires compassion for the weak, the vulnerable, and the outcast.  And these calls to love and compassion do not always rest easily beside calls to holiness and purity, as evidenced by how often Jesus found himself embroiled in conflict over Sabbath keeping.

During the Babylonian exile, Sabbath keeping had emerged as the central Jewish ritual.  It had allowed them to maintain their distinct identity as the people of Yahweh while captive in a foreign land ordered around foreign gods.  Both Sabbath keeping and synagogue grew out of exile and were central to the Judaism Jesus knew and practiced.  And yet he constantly came in conflict with the Sabbath rules.

The rabbis and Pharisees were never so rigid as to deny any tension between purity and compassion.  They created exceptions to Sabbath rules that allowed "work" on the Sabbath to save a life or rescue someone in distress.  But Jesus pressed beyond such exceptions when he healed a man with a withered hand in today's gospel.  There was not emergency.  Jesus could have waited until sundown when the Sabbath was ended.  But he doesn't.

Jesus never speaks against purity.  Jesus honors the Sabbath and calls his followers to holiness and righteousness.  But when Jesus is faced with a conflict between the demands of holiness and the demands of compassion, he routinely finds ways to move in the direction of compassion without ever abandoning holiness and purity.

In our culture, tensions between purity and compassion are easy to find.  The Westboro Baptist folks who protest military funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs are an extreme example of purity advocates.  But even fairly progressive religious groups such as my own denomination struggle with this same purity issue.  And even though we Presbyterians have recently approved changes that will lead to the ordination of gays and lesbians, a very large majority of our members believe such a move to be an affront to purity and holiness, and an affront to God.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who think all issues of purity to be superstitious relics.  Doing what is right and good require no rituals or concerns about holiness.  These folks note that many atheists do much more good in the world than do many Christians, which is of course completely true.  And even among many church folks, rituals such as Sabbath keeping have all but disappeared.  At times it is difficult to tell the atheist from the agnostic from the Christian except by which box they check on the survey form.

For whatever reason, we humans seem not to like tensions.  We want to resolve them.  Much of the differences between churches who proclaim a vengeful God of judgment who is itching to send the reprobate to hell, and churches who preach a benevolent God of grace whose love would not even permit the existence of a hell, arise from how they resolve the tensions between purity and compassion, holiness and love, judgment and mercy, etc. 

But resolving these tensions in one way or another usually creates a small god of our own making.  A dynamic, vital faith requires that we live within the tension between holiness and compassion, law and grace, mercy and judgment.  We cannot simply pick one or the other.  We cannot flatten God to conform to our limitations and preferences. 

And so I believe that a vital faith and a vital church require us to vigilant with regards to our dislike of tension.  If we are on the progressive/liberal side of things we must beware our tendency to see only the side of compassion, mercy, and love.  And if we are on the more conservative side, we must beware our tendency toward law, judgment, and purity.  Otherwise none of us will arrive at anything close to a biblical faith, instead constructing a proof-text faith that creates God in our own image.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Sermon audio - Abundance

 

Sunday Sermon text - Abundance


Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10
Abundance
James Sledge                                                                             May 15, 2011

About ten years ago, a little book called The Prayer of Jabez came out, offering to teach you the secrets of “breaking through to the blessed life.” It quickly became a best seller, and as often happens when something “religious” becomes extremely popular, many churches started offering classes and seminars based on the book, and the ministry founded by the author made available a DVD set and workbook, not to mention Prayer of Jabez greeting cards, a Prayer of Jabez journal, and so on.
Now if you had never heard of Jabez before this book came out, there is good reason.  Even serious students of the Bible easily could have missed Jabez’s solitary appearance in 1 Chronicles.  That’s obscure enough, but Jabez’s brief moment is embedded in a long genealogy of the descendants of Judah, one of Jacob’s sons.  Sandwiched between the listings of Ahuzzam, Hepher, Temeni, and Zobebah; Chelub, Shuhah, Kenaz, and Hathath – every one of which my computer’s spellcheck flagged in red – we meet Jabez. 
It turns out that the name Jabez is related to the Hebrew word for pain, and he has received this rather troublesome name because his mother experienced a great deal of pain in childbirth.  But she had more than gotten back at her son.  In the thinking of ancient Israelites, names had real power, and to name her son Jabez was to curse him in a way. 
To call someone “Pain” or “Hurt” was to fate him to a life of pain and hurt.  But Jabez called out to God asking to be blessed instead, and God granted his prayer.
It’s difficult to know exactly what to make of these two brief verses in the Bible.  It seems likely they are fragments of a larger story, but still it seems reasonable to conclude that they means to say something about the saving power of God.  Even though Jabez is cursed by his name and fate, God’s power to save and bless is greater.
Based on my admittedly cursory reading of the book, The Prayer of Jabez, I’m not certain its author fully appreciates this.  Rather, he seems to have appropriated Jabez’s prayer as a kind of magic formula.  Say this prayer every morning and great things will happen to you.  A look at The Prayer of Jabez website seems to confirm this.  There you can download studies on scripturally based financial freedom, spiritual principles for obtaining God’s blessings, for profitable personal godliness, and more.  Learn the secrets that will allow you to tap into God’s power to make you wealthy and happy and whatever else you are seeking.
In our gospel today, Jesus says, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture… I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Images of sheep and shepherds are foreign to many of us, but even we recognize that finding pasture is about provision, about preparing a table for us, and this abundantly.  We will have all we need and more.  God’s blessings will rain down on us.  We’ll achieve financial freedom.  Our cups will overflow. 
Food and drink are often associated with abundance: $600 an ounce caviar, a $500 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne (more than $1000 if you want a really good year), and a $300 Kobe beef steak.  Ah, the good life, the abundant life.
Interestingly, food is mentioned several times in today’s reading from Acts, although there’s no caviar or Dom Perignon.  In the span of five short verses we hear twice about breaking bread, and of how they ate their food with glad and generous hearts. But this joyful fellowship and dining doesn’t have the feel of Bon App├ętit or Wine Enthusiast magazines.  After all, we are told that they had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  That hardly fits with the typical understanding of abundance, which usually means, “I have more than you do.  I can afford better stuff than you can.”
I’m not sure when I first learned that Jesus promises us abundant life.  It seems to me that I’ve always “known” this.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  So you can imagine my surprise when I did a little digging and discovered that the phrase “abundant life” appears nowhere in the Bible.  And the word Jesus uses when he speaks of our having life “abundantly” is quite rare.  Only here is it translated “abundantly.” Elsewhere it is translated “more” or “unnecessary,” but a quick trip to the Greek dictionary showed that the first definition is “extraordinary” or “remarkable.”
I thought about that and heard Jesus saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it remarkably, extraordinarily.”  And it occurred to me that the life of the community described in our reading from Acts was pretty remarkable and extraordinary, a Spirit filled community marked by fellowship and worship, by radical sharing where everyone had enough, a community filled with gladness and generosity.  No wonder they had the goodwill of all the people, Jew and Gentile alike.  It was such a remarkable, extraordinary community how could people not notice, not admire it, not want something similar for themselves?
This extraordinary community in Acts is not something they created by trying hard.  It was a gift.  As the people gave themselves over to God’s presence, the Spirit began to transform their community so that it started to look more like God’s coming Kingdom than it did the world.  Too often, people think of faith as a way to get God on our side and bless us with all the things the world says we need.  But this remarkable community in Acts is something altogether different.  It has become a preview of God’s new day, God’s dream for a better world, a world of joy and generosity.
I shared during our Lenten study that Shawn and I used to be big fans of the TV show ER.  The show ran from 1994 to 2009, and for the first eight seasons Anthony Edwards starred as Dr. Mark Green.  One of the real tearjerker episodes on ER was when Mark Green dies.  He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that did not respond to treatments.  Finally, with only a short time left to live, he journeyed to Hawaii, where he had lived as a child, to die.  In his last moments, he has some time alone with his daughter.  Lying in his bed he tells her that he has been trying to think of something important to say to her, “something every father should impart to his daughter.  Generosity,” he says.  “Be generous— with your time,    with your love,    with your life.”
We Christians are often very good at charity, at doing things for people who need help, bringing food for those less fortunate than us.  But I’m not sure charity is quite the same thing that Mark Green was recommending to his daughter.  I think maybe Mark Green had discovered something akin to what that remarkable community in Acts had discovered, something I think that a lot of people would be overjoyed to discover.
Regulars in worship here know that I am not one to use poetry in my sermons.  But as I was finishing work on this one, I stumbled onto a poem by Walter Brueggemann, scholar, theologian, Old Testament professor, and wonderful writer.  It is called “On Generosity,” and since this poem is also a prayer, I think I will pray it.  Let us pray.

On our own, we conclude:
that there is not enough to go around
we are going to run short
of money
of love
of grades
of publications
of sex
of beer
of members
of years
of life
we should seize the day
seize the goods
seize our neighbor’s goods
because there is not enough to go around.

And in the midst of our perceived deficit:
You come
You come giving bread in the wilderness
You come giving children at the 11th hour
You come giving homes to exiles
You come giving futures to the shut-down
You come giving Easter joy to the dead
You come—fleshed in Jesus.

And we watch while
the blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed
the deaf hear
the dead are raised
the poor dance and sing.

We watch
and we take food we did not grow and
life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and
families and neighbors who sustain us
when we did not deserve it.
It dawns on us—late rather than soon—
that “you give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”

By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance… mercy upon mercy
blessing upon blessing.

Sink your generosity deep into our lives
that your muchness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving, we may endlessly give,
so that the world may be made Easter new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder
without coercive need, but only love
without destructive greed, but only praise
without aggression and invasiveness…
all things Easter new…
all around us, toward us and
by us
all things Easter new.

Finish your creation… in wonder, love, and praise. Amen. [1]

Amen.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) p. 3.